Saturday, March 28, 2009

Something new under the sun

It's been said that the british national dish is not fish-and-chips as many would have guessed but chicken tikka masala; and when we came up with this idea of having Indian food together in London, our friend e suggested this trendy place on Kensington High Street. We were also meeting our friend d who happened to be in town and his friend c. well, d and e are high school mates, e and I crossed path in both Washington dc and boston, and d and I were college roommates. That’s how this dinner gathering came about. Talking about a small world.

The dinner came right after a jubilant afternoon when we saw my favorite football club came out victorious in the big London derby march, so that already set the right mood for the evening for us. The restaurant’s located in the heart of Kensington on the main street and about 5 minute walk away from the tube station, so it’s not hard to find at all.

The menu does take us a bit of time to study over: there are the a la carte ones and also several tasting menu sets we can chose from, and after some deliberation we came up with a consensus to go for the 6-course “Jugalbandi” tasting menu. Turned out it's such an eye-opener – definitely not like any Indian food that we have had before. Ever! On the menu it said it’s a selection of traditional dishes; well if that is so we definitely feel the need for a whole new lesson on Indian cuisine.

Starting off with an amuse-bouche of spiced coconut soup with chicken served in an espresso cup, we then moved on to dishes like scallop in kokum and lime leaf “foam”, trio of chicken tikka, tandoori grouper with “upma”-Indian cous-cous in a champagne and cardamom sauce, and spiced wild mushroom rice with mini papadum and tomato “makhni” ice-cream... and they were all presented so beautifully.

And you can imagine, as with typical Indian, they were so all rich in flavors, with familiar spices and some not so familiar ones, and all in their unique shapes or forms. Every course was such a delight as it’s brought in front of us one by one, and so were the conversations we shared in between, trying to catch up on how everyone’s been in their lives and having a good laugh. Since almost all the courses came in tidbits of a single ingredient cooked multiple ways, we were able to sample quite a bit of different tastes.

By the time we finished dessert, which was a pinekernal, cashew and pistachio brittle with silky chocolate moouse and masala tea icecream, it’s already 10:30pm, and that was the time when we were "politely" asked to move to the bar area for drinks so our table can be cleared for another round of patrons. Well, it's already late and there were actually people waiting to come in, so fair game, I suppose. And my cup of masala tea drew the evening to a satisfying close.

With our regular Indian restaurant of choice being in the somewhat filthy chungking with dishes such as chicken tikka masala, tandoori on a hot plate or garlic naan, needless to say, the evening at Zaika will easily come down as one of our finest Indian dining moments. Always something new under the sun, I must say.

when? march 21 2009
where? Zaika, 1 Kensington High Street, London.
occasion? a get-together with friends
menu highlights? Tandoori Machli: Tandoori Grouper, marinated in ginger and chillies, "upma"-Indian cous-cous, in a champagne and cardamom sauce

Saturday, March 7, 2009

When Vintage Champagne Met Napa Valley Cab

This is one of the few evenings that food's not the major attraction at Kitchen@17a, but wine. I am talking about the "Open That Bottle Night" celebration on the last Saturday of February, taking cue from two Wall Street Journal columnists to enjoy the bottles that we never found an occasion good enough for them.

"Exuding honey, vanilla and light coffee notes, this creamy Champagne straddles youth and maturity. Well-balanced, fine and vibrant. The coffee and vanilla notes will develop with age."

We kicked off the evening with a bottle of bubbly which our friends have graciously contributed - a 1998 Dom Perignon. Well, after tasting it, we jokingly vowed that we would never drink anything else (as if we can afford to do just that). It's creamy and crisp with fine persistant bubbles. A divine wine that went perfectly well with the seafood dishes we began with - I certainly hope our friends didn't regret opening it and sharing with us.

"An elegantly style, this is well-balanced, with a mix of smoke, spice and currant-laced Cabernet aromas that maintain their focus, ending with a long, lingering finish that keeps the fruit at the forefront."

We then moved on to the Napa Valley cab that we picked up last year at a newly-opened wine shop a few blocks down from The French Laundry at Yountville. It's a 2004 Rocca Family Cabernet Sauvignon - a small production wine (900 cases) that came highly recommended by the shop owner. As we swirled and enjoyed a sip, it's not hard to understand why people said young Napa Valley cab can handily beat some of the big boys on the other side of the ocean in horizontal tasting. 2004 has been our vintage of choice lately, and we did try a few supposedly famous and coveted ones, but nothing compared to the complexity and maturity of this. Aromatic, balanced, long finish and all that. A classic cab and certainly deserved every bit of the 93 points Wine Spectator gave it. I supposed it’s the scarcity of the wine that made us hesitate to pop this open earlier, but I am glad that we tasted this just at the right time.

As for food, I decided to go a little adventurous, and hence a few dishes made its debut at Kitchen@17A. The minimally-marinated salmon was cooked "sous vide" style at 55C for 20 minutes - it's simple yet amazingly full of flavor and moisture - just as what other die-hard sous vide enthusiasts have commented online. No doubt this is the best way to cook salmon, both from effort and taste point of view.

Taking the bloc of foie gras that our friend has given us as a souvenir last year, I then made some "wontons" and served them with bonito-lime broth and porcini mushrooms. It's something that I just made it up, taking inspirations from joel robuchon's foie gras ravioli recipe and dobin-mushi that we tasted at iwanami - one of our favorite Japanese restaurants. I personally found it interesting (especially as an amuse-bouche) but the reviews from the table were mixed - I did make the broth "a little" on the sour side, thinking it would balance the fatty texture of foie gras and showed some contrasting taste to the palate.

For entree, I repeated the duck confit that I made a fortnight ago, and used roasted chestnut and potatoes as side this time. It's a time-consuming process to make the dish from scratch but it's worth it, I think. We ended the evening with cheese and dessert courses - a chocolate fondue (valrhona 72%) with tidbits of strawberries and butter cake. Can't go wrong with that - I figured even if I screwed up with those new dishes I could get some consolation points back from a "safety" dessert.

A good idea copied from someone else turned out to be a great evening for us (and our wines) I think we definitely should make otbn our yearly tradition. Next year, maybe I can convince cyy to let go of those opus ones and lafites that have been sitting in our wine cabinet for too long...

(those words of italic typefaces are reviews from the Wine Spectator - not mine)